By Iain Rogers
MADRID, Feb 9 (Reuters) - They had to wait almost two decades and in the end it only lasted a week - Atletico Madrid's brief appearance at the top of La Liga, their first since 1996, ended on Saturday when they went down 2-0 at promoted Almeria.
It was a second successive defeat for Diego Simeone's side following a 3-0 drubbing at Real Madrid in Wednesday's King's Cup semi-final first leg and Real, who beat Villarreal 4-2, climbed above Atletico on goal difference ahead of Barcelona's match at Sevilla later on Sunday.
A win in Seville would put the champions level on 57 points from 23 matches with Real and Atletico but ahead on goal difference with 15 games left.
While it is too early to suggest that Atletico's season is about to come off the rails, Saturday's reverse on the south coast prompted a call for unity and hard work from captain Gabi.
Simeone has less strength in depth in his squad than far richer rivals Real and Barca, which has raised doubts about the ability of Madrid's second club to compete effectively on three fronts and cope with the gruelling calendar.
They are also through to the last 16 of the Champions League and play their first leg at AC Milan on Feb. 19 and there was more bad news for Simeone on Saturday as Portuguese midfielder Tiago was carried off with a knee injury.
"The team is angry but we have to lift our heads and work harder if possible to put this bad run of two defeats behind us as soon as possible," Gabi told reporters.
"We will see whether this team has it in themselves to overcome it," he added.
"We need to be more unified than ever. We have been in a privileged position (in the table) and we have the good fortune to still be up there."
Atletico's bid to defend their Cup crown - they beat Real 2-1 in last season's final - appears to be over after the heavy defeat in the first leg but an early goal when they host Real for the return on Tuesday could set them up for an unlikely comeback victory.
They will need to show more creativity than in the game at Almeria, when they were reduced to speculative shots.
They also had goalkeeper Daniel Aranzubia, in for injured first choice Thibaut Courtois, sent off for upending Jonathan Zongo in the penalty area with four minutes to go.
Simeone, who was playing for Atletico when they won the league and King's Cup double in 1996, echoed his captain's call for hard graft.
"We are not going to look for excuses," the former Argentina midfielder told a news conference.
"We won't blame the referee, the wind, the ball. We lost, our opponent did a great job and we congratulate them.
"The only way we know that we can stay on this path is by working and that's what we will do." (Editing by Ed Osmond)